Breathing woes of Kathmandu

Air pollution has become a major environmental concern as well as a health problem for developing cities. Kathmandu is not an exception. Instead, the increasing levels of air pollution have made people rechristen Kathmandu as Dustmandu” and “Maskmandu”.

The average hourly concentration of PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of less than 2.5 micrometre diametre) in Kathmandu last winter was four to five times the government standard of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. You can forget the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard of 25!

A WHO report published last year states that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes some three million annual deaths worldwide. Another report states that 570,000 infants die to respiratory infections attributable to air pollution. Though the exact figures of such deaths are not available for Kathmandu, we can easily assess the threat. Numbeo’s Pollution Index 2017 ranked Kathmandu as the seventh most polluted city in the world in terms of air quality. How can we expect our children to survive past infancy if the first breath they take is of toxic air?

Some suggestions that have been floated “to avoid” air pollution, however, are impractical. These suggestions include doing physical activities only after noon, avoiding all sports, not leaving home without a mask and not going for morning or evening walks. These are virtually impossible to follow. Should we have to wait until noon to enjoy the outdoors? Is it ethical to tell children not to go out to play? Is it practical to put a mask on a one-year child while carrying him or her out of the house? Eventually, we might hear suggestions like “breathe only at the designated places!”

The only solution is cleaning the atmosphere. While the government’s decision last March to ban vehicles older than 20 years or more is commendable. Further action is crucial. According to a BBC report, the brick kilns destroyed by the 2015 earthquake can be rebuilt using new technology so as to reduce smoke emission. The government should offer technical assistance as well as subsidies to encourage such initiatives.

Hundreds of trees along the ring road were cut down to widen it and yet no counter-plantation has taken place. In the end, no matter how wide the ring road became, not a single lane for cycles was apportioned. What is the use of 12-lane roads when pedestrians can’t breathe?